Ignoranceby Milan Kundera, Linda Asher
A New York Times Notable Book
Irena and Josef meet by chance while returning to their homeland, which they had abandoned twenty years earlier. Will they manage to pick up the thread of their strange love story, interrupted almost as soon as it began and then lost in the tides of history? The truth is that after such a long absence "their memories no longer/b>
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A New York Times Notable Book
Irena and Josef meet by chance while returning to their homeland, which they had abandoned twenty years earlier. Will they manage to pick up the thread of their strange love story, interrupted almost as soon as it began and then lost in the tides of history? The truth is that after such a long absence "their memories no longer match."
Milan Kundera's novel Ignorance explores a scenario close to his heart -- lovers who are swept away (and apart) by fate. It also shows why Kundera is one of the most distinctive talents working today. Like his earlier work, this novel is a delicious combination of eroticism and ephemeral themes, which meld into a powerful, moving tale.
Not surprisingly, fate's agent here is the 1968 Soviet invasion of Kundera's native Czechoslovakia. The book's protagonists, Josef and Irena, both fled after the crushing of the Prague Spring, only to return in the 1990s -- with much trepidation -- after the end of communist rule. What they find is a no-longer-familiar landscape, distant friends, and, briefly, solace in each other's arms. All of these notions will be familiar to fans of Kundera, whose previous works include The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Life Is Elsewhere, and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. The author, who was himself forced into exile in 1968, has spent the better part of his writing career retracing his footsteps -- a forgivable compulsion, since it has produced some fascinating work. Granted, in Ignorance this theme appears a bit shopworn, given the passage of a decade since the demise of communism in eastern Europe. And linguistically, the story comes to us third-hand; Kundera originally wrote the tale in French, which was then translated into economical English by Linda Asher. But what we get is another entertaining, quick read. Sam Stall
In Ignorance, Kundera asks a question he has probably often heard during his years in France: "Is it true that emigration causes artists to lose their creativity?" Although none of his four major characters are artists whose experiences might engage that question, the novel in which they exist answers in Kundera's usual indirect and qualified way: "not necessarily." Kundera's French novels have been less highly regarded than his Czech novels. Ignorance recaptures the larger-than-personal relevance of those earlier works. By reversing the émigré experience, the author creatively mines the rich material of changed people returning to a changed country and writes his best novel in more than a decade. "[T]he very notion of homeland," Kundera writes, "with all its emotional power, is bound up with the relative brevity of our life, which allows us too little time to become attached to some other country, to other countries, to other languages."
Irena, now "forty-something," moved toFrance because her husband was harassed in 1969. After he died, she began living in Paris with a Swedish émigré named Gustaf who loves Prague, opens an office there and tries to persuade Irena to move home. On one of her trips back, Irena runs into Josef, who emigrated to Denmark and is returning to the Czech Republic for the first time in decades. She recognizes him as a man who made a pass at her when she was young, but he doesn't recognize her. Irena conceals from Josef what she remembers; he conceals from her what he has forgotten. Ignorance begins.
Josef is returning to the Czech Republic to satisfy the wish of his dead Danish wife but finds himself excited by the prospect of sex with a woman whose name he doesn't know. Irena returns to please her lover but sees in Josef a way to recapture her Czech youth, get free of Gustaf and perhaps escape her stifling family. Irena and Josef arrange to meet just before he goes back to Denmark.
While waiting for their liaison, the protagonists visit family and friends, Czechs who have managed to survive or manipulate the political system. But Irena and Josef ignore what they might learn from these people, and their false expectations of each other lead to betrayals of themselves, others and their histories. Complementing these two ambivalent and changing characters are simpler folk: Gustaf, who enjoys the novelty of Prague, and Milada, one of Josef's old girlfriends, who suffers because she never left the city. Taken together, the characters' responses to emigration represent the divided or quartered mind of their creator.
As in the past, Kundera shows little interest in soliciting readers of conventional novels. The title is off-putting. The characters and events seem like anecdotes assembled to illustrate a rambling lecture, perhaps by an amateur psychiatrist. We know little about the characters, what they look like, what they do. When emotional momentum builds between characters, Kundera shifts to other characters or to a philosophical reflection. He interrupts the novel's climactic sex scene several times. Detached telling dominates intimate showing. Abstractions take the place of the occasional concrete description.
These methods are Kundera's way of imposing ignorance on readers, giving us less than we expect or wantand forcing us to concentrate intensely on the puzzle pieces he leaves on the table. How is piece J like piece G, unlike piece I, a version of piece M? What does "home" really mean to these four characters? How are the returnees like Homer's Odysseus, to whom Kundera continually refers throughout the text? In the realm of motives, can family dynamics be separated from political oppression? What difference would knowledge of the past make when personal and social circumstances are so changed? Why is Ignorance from its first page onward saturated with a series of literal questions similar to these?
I think I know the answer to that last one. Many readers want to feel at home in a novel, secure as a native, unquestioned. But émigrés rarely feel completely at homein their new country, back in their old country. Memory haunts them or leaves them with lacunae. They are continually forced to question the extent of their ignorance. Kundera's wayward narration and unanswerable speculations match perfectly with this ignorance, as similar methods did in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Like Kundera's characters, readers experience émigré uncertainty by moving around in this interrogative Book of Sadness and Remembering.
Sadness, remembering and some comedy: an absurd chat full of non sequiturs between Josef and a former communist; a devastating mockery of a teenage girl's desire to emigrate to a better place through suicide; Gustaf's grotesque seduction by his mother-in-law, the motherland he never had; a possibly parodic, possibly profound "mathematical" analysis of memory. Kundera's novel is a timely meditation on a Europe with more émigrés, exiles, refugees and displaced people than at any time since World War II. Ignorance is not bliss, but it troubles in canny and witty ways.
Read an Excerpt
"What are you still doing here?" Her tone wasn't harsh, but it wasn't kindly, either; Sylvie was indignant.
"Where should I be?" Irena asked.
"You mean this isn't my home anymore?"
Of course she wasn't trying to drive Irena out of France or implying that she was an undesirable alien: "You know what I mean!"
"Yes, I do know, but aren't you forgetting that I've got my work here? My apartment? My children?"
"Look, I know Gustaf. He'll do anything to help you get back to your own country. And your daughters, let's not kid ourselves! They've already got their own lives. Good Lord, Irena, it's so fascinating, what's going on in your country! In a situation like that, things always work out."
"But Sylvie! It's not just a matter of practical things, the job, the apartment. I've been living here for twenty years now. My life is here!"
"Your people have a revolution going on!"
Sylvie spoke in a tone that brooked no objection. Then she said no more. By her silence she meant to tell Irena that you don't desert when great events are happening.
"But if I go back to my country, we won't see each other anymore," said Irena, to put her friend in an uncomfortable position.
That emotional demagoguery miscarried. Sylvie's voice warmed: "Darling, I'll come see you! I promise, I promise!"
They were seated across from each other, over two empty coffee cups. Irena saw tears of emotion in Sylvie's eyes as her friend bent toward her and gripped her hand: "It will be your great return." And again: "Your great return."
Repeated, the words took on such power that, deep inside her, Irena sawthem written out with capital initials: Great Return. She dropped her resistance: she was captivated by images suddenly welling up from books read long ago, from films, from her own memory, and maybe from her ancestral memory: the lost son home again with his aged mother; the man returning to his beloved from whom cruel destiny had torn him away; the family homestead we all carry about within us; the rediscovered trail still marked by the forgotten footprints of childhood; Odysseus sighting his island after years of wandering; the return, the return, the great magic of the return.
The Greek word for "return" is nostos. Algos means "suffering." So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return. To express that fundamental notion most Europeans can utilize a word derived from the Greek (nostalgia, nostalgie) as well as other words with roots in their national languages: añoranza, say the Spaniards; saudade, say the Portuguese. In each language these words have a different semantic nuance. Often they mean only the sadness caused by the impossibility of returning to one's country: a longing for country, for home. What in English is called "homesickness." Or in German: Heimweh. In Dutch: heimwee. But this reduces that great notion to just its spatial element. One of the oldest European languages, Icelandic (like English) makes a distinction between two terms: söknuour: nostalgia in its general sense; and heimprá: longing for the homeland. Czechs have the Greek-derived nostalgie as well as their own noun, stesk, and their own verb; the most moving, Czech expression of love: styska se mi po tobe ("I yearn for you," "I'm nostalgic for you"; "I cannot bear the pain of your absence"). In Spanish añoranza comes from the verb añorar (to feel nostalgia), which comes from the Catalan enyorar, itself derived from the Latin word ignorare (to be unaware of, not know, not experience; to lack or miss), In that etymological light nostalgia seems something like the pain of ignorance, of not knowing. You are far away, and I don't know what has become of you. My country is far away, and I don't know what is happening there. Certain languages have problems with nostalgia: the French can only express it by the noun from the Greek root, and have no verb for it; they can say Je m'ennuie de toi (I miss you), but the word s'ennuyer is weak, cold -- anyhow too light for so grave a feeling. The Germans rarely use the Greek-derived term Nostalgie, and tend to say Sehnsucht in speaking of the desire for an absent thing. But Sehnsucht can refer both to something that has existed and to something that has never existed (a new adventure), and therefore it does not necessarily imply the nostos idea; to include in Sehnsucht the obsession with returning would require adding a complementary phrase: Sehnsucht nach der Vergangenheit, nach der verlorenen Kindheit, nach der ersten Liebe (longing for the past, for lost childhood, for a first love).
The dawn of ancient Greek culture brought the birth of the Odyssey, the founding epic of nostalgia. Let us emphasize: Odysseus, the greatest adventurer of all time, is also the greatest nostalgic. He went off (not very happily) to the Trojan War and stayed for ten years. Then he tried to return to his native Ithaca, but the gods' intrigues prolonged his journey, first by three years jammed with the most uncanny happenings, then by seven more years that he spent as hostage and lover with Calypso, who in her passion for him would not let him leave her island.
In Book Five of the Odyssey, Odysseus tells Calypso: "As wise as she is, I know that Penelope cannot compare to you in stature or in beauty ... And yet the only wish I wish each day is to be back there, to see in my own house the day of my return!" And Homer goes on: "As Odysseus spoke, the sun sank; the dusk came: and beneath the vault deep within the cavern, they withdrew to lie and love in each other's arms."
A far cry from the life of the poor émigré that Irena had been for a long while now. Odysseus lived a real ...Ignorance. Copyright © by Milan Kundera. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Meet the Author
Milan Kundera is the author of the novels The Joke, Farewell Waltz, Life Is Elsewhere, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Immortality, and the short-story collection Laughable Loves—all originally written in Czech. His most recent novels Slowness, Identity, and Ignorance, as well as his nonfiction works The Art of the Novel, Testaments Betrayed, The Curtain, and Encounter, were originally written in French.
- Paris, France
- Date of Birth:
- April 1, 1929
- Place of Birth:
- Brno, Czechoslovakia
- Undergraduate degree in philosophy, Charles University, Prague, 1952
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A beautifully written work that gets to the soul of deeply rooted feelings of nostalgia, love, and loss. Kundera ties his characters' past and present in an interesting homecoming.
Although this has been said MANY times, Kundera's works in Czech were brilliant, and his subsequent works in French have paled. While Ignorance is better than both his previous books in French, it still doesn't have the eloquence that The Unbearable Lightness of Being possessed. The philosophical passages of this book have a very rehashed feeling, as if we have heard all this before and it is no longer relevant. However the characters are well defined and the question of memories and ignorance are very thought provoking. Unfortunately, Kundera has yet to live up to his earlier works. I still recommend this book because it was a good read; good, but not brilliant.